movie review

The Dissident Is a Grisly Look at the Life and Death of Saudi Exile Jamal Khashoggi

The Dissident
The Dissident Photo: Jake Swantko/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The 2018 murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul gave the world a grisly glimpse into the supernaturally evil side of international politics. It’s not that we didn’t know such a side existed. Over the years, we’ve seen wars, we’ve seen revelations of torture, we’ve seen deranged narcissistic sociopaths reach the highest levels of government all across the world. But there was something uniquely unspeakable about the idea of a man calmly walking into his government’s office in another country, shaking hands, and then promptly being strangled, dismembered, and disposed of — it was as if a wormhole had opened up into another, more medieval dimension.

Of course, it wasn’t another dimension at all. It happens to be the one we’re living in, and Bryan Fogel’s documentary The Dissident seeks to make sense of Khashoggi’s story in the context of Saudi Arabia’s increasing efforts to quell dissent even as the country attempts to open up and modernize. And the director certainly seems to have struck a nerve: The New York Times recently reported that Fogel, despite having won an Oscar for his previous documentary, the incendiary Russian doping scandal exposé Icarus, found almost no takers for The Dissident among the major distributors and streaming services after the film’s premiere at Sundance, possibly because they were afraid of pissing off the Saudis. (The film premiered on demand this month and opened in a small number of theaters in late December.) It would certainly have been a no-brainer for Netflix, which released Icarus, to put out The Dissident — but perhaps the company was worried about an impending eight-picture deal with a Saudi studio, which was announced in November, and its efforts to expand in the Middle East and the Arab world. And it would have been an even bigger no-brainer for it to be released by Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos, who, after all, also owns the Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a contributor.

Maybe it’s just business. Which was probably also true of Khashoggi’s murder. Among the key reasons for his falling out with the Saudi regime — after years of being the consummate insider and, at times, even an adviser to the regime — were his criticisms of Donald Trump, whom Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was eager to do more business with in an effort to establish himself as a 21st-century leader. It’s a reminder that “modernization” doesn’t always mean progress: Part of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to become a major, cutting-edge power involved the use of troll farms that would overwhelm its perceived enemies on social media, and Fogel shows us how Khashoggi was swarmed mercilessly by fake accounts once he became persona non grata. As the film intercuts between various strands of Khashoggi’s story, it whipsaws pointedly between images of techno-warfare in the information age and footage of the Turkish authorities uncovering the ghastly details of the journalist’s final minutes. Beneath all those ones and zeros, it seems, our lizard brains will always churn away. When a manufactured Twitter pile-on doesn’t work, a bone saw will do the trick.

The Dissident could actually be said to have several subjects, and that might be the film’s most interesting gambit — and, perhaps, its partial undoing. Much of the picture follows Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi exile living in Montreal who, with Khashoggi’s spiritual and financial help, went from an unknown kid mouthing off on Twitter to a prominent activist now broadcasting an enormously popular YouTube show that often targets the Saudi regime. Abdulaziz reveals that he, too, was approached by Saudi agents who sought to control his work and at one point even suspiciously invited him to visit the country’s consulate. When he refused their demands, his family and friends in the Kingdom were arrested, some of them tortured; many of them are imprisoned still. (One of the film’s most heartbreaking moments is an audio recording of Abdulaziz’s terrified teenage brother, tearfully imploring him to stop opposing the Saudi regime.) Alongside Abdulaziz, Fogel also follows Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, who had to wait outside the Saudi consulate for hours while he was being butchered inside; the whole reason for the visit to the consulate was for some paperwork required for their marriage. In the days and months following the murder, Cengiz became an international cause célèbre, the face of attempts to bring justice to Khashoggi’s killers. (“You are not alone,” we see Bezos publicly telling her, at an Istanbul memorial held outside the consulate one year after the murder.)

So, we’ve got Cengiz, Abdulaziz, the rise of Saudi Arabia, Middle Eastern politics, the crime itself and its aftermath, and Khashoggi’s life and career — these are a lot of story balls to juggle, and Fogel doesn’t always succeed in juggling them. The Dissident has powerful stretches, to be sure: The murder investigation, complete with a transcript of Khashoggi’s killing and interviews with Turkish authorities, who go from delivering matter-of-fact procedural details to expressing outrage and disgust, is particularly riveting. But amid all these narrative threads Fogel occasionally loses sight of what should be the beating heart of this film: Khashoggi himself, who often comes through as an ill-defined figure with relatively ill-defined politics and views.

In fact, this past fall saw the release of another film about Khashoggi, Kingdom of Silence (currently available on Showtime), which focuses more intently on his life and work and which actually features passages from his essays and articles. Kingdom of Silence has its own issues — it sort of has the opposite problem from The Dissident in that it leaves us wanting to know more about this man’s death and the global forces surrounding it — but, watching it, you do get a clearer sense of the profound role Khashoggi played in Saudi society, both in his writing (he reported from the front lines of the Afghan mujahideen’s war against the Soviets and even helped turn a charismatic rebel leader named Osama Bin Laden, at the time a U.S. ally, into a celebrity back home) and in his work as an international liaison for the government.

Perhaps The Dissident glosses over such elements because Khashoggi’s previous work was briefly weaponized in the wake of his death, as people like Donald Trump Jr., stupidly tried to portray him as a terrorist sympathizer, presumably in an effort to make excuses for daddy’s coddling of the government that murdered him. But Khashoggi’s journey as a journalist, columnist, and insider to dissident and exile is not just crucial; it’s quite moving as well. Once you better understand how significant a figure he was in Saudi Arabia, you realize what it meant for him to become such a vocal regime opponent. In truth, the two films expose each other’s flaws, but they also mitigate them, too. (Another example: Hatice Cengiz is almost completely absent from Kingdom of Silence, which focuses primarily on Khashoggi’s two previous spouses … who are, in turn, almost completely absent from The Dissident.) The movies fit like jigsaw-puzzle pieces. The best way to watch either might be to watch both.

*A version of this article appears in the January 18, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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The Dissident Looks at the Grisly Murder of Jamal Khashoggi